Tribute albums — where established artists re-visit the back catalogue of a significant figure from the musical pantheon — have been employed to different ends over the last decade or so. Some have underpinned high profile charity promotions — the Cole Porter collection Red Hot and Blue, for example, which drew attention to the AIDS crisis. Others have been heartfelt paeans to the fast fading — there was a splendid Curtis Mayfield collection in this vein — or a reverential homage to a late artist — the Lost in the Stars, the rock set celebrating Kurt Weill’s output, is particularly recommended. Still others have appeared to merely exploit the commercial possibilities that fame by association generate — the “Duets” recordings which drew on Sinatra’s canon seem to fit that pigeon-hole.
The recent rush of Bob Dylan tribute collections has had a touch of the predictable about it. With his landmark 60th birthday in May, record companies have been finding ways to ride the bandwagon. It Ain’t Me Babe, released by Sanctuary, gathers rather anodyne versions of Dylan tunes by principally British artists — from the Tremeloes to Marmalade. BMG’s May Your Song Always be Sung Again Volume 2 compiles a more interesting selection, with Presley, Nina Simone and Odetta providing an eclectic mix, the album a follow up to an earlier 1997 set.
But I doubt that any of the birthday wishes pulled together in Dylan’s name will have quite the quality and character of a charming new Red House release. A Nod to Bob has a rationale that over-rides the notional bows that other labels have been unable to resist. For Red House Records not only share Dylan’s home state but also promote a musical sensibility that lies close to the heart of Minnesota’s most famous son. In fact, Red House, commemorating their own 15th birthday, go as far as to suggest that without the concept of the singer-songwriter, an invention they credit to Dylan, the company would not exist at all.
A Nod to Bob: An Artists’ Tribute to Bob Dylan on His 60th Birthday gathers a community of music-makers, old and younger, whose performances draw a direct line to the artistic treasure chest Dylan cracked open during the first half of the Sixties. Some players here are old friends of the man, some, contemporaries who shared the early Greenwich Village vibe, some, collaborators who added their own twists to the complex tapestry of Dylan recordings. Other members of the cast are respected fellow spirits following in his wake, some newer arrivals on the platform.
There are numerous thoughts that come to mind as this troupe breathe yet more life into some of Dylan’s finest songs. For a start, the composer has never be averse to re-arrangement; in fact, there are times in the Zimmerman story where the activity has almost become his raison d’etre, purposefully culling familiar recorded versions of songs in favour of live incarnations that make only passing acquaintance with the original.
So when Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — actually an early influence on Dylan and “the last of that great circle that included Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac” to quote the sleeve notes — takes a classic like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and alters the emphasis of the lyrical delivery it doesn’t jar but makes you feel as if the writer may well have done the same at some point during in eternal concert odyssey.
On a different tack, Lucy Kaplansky sweetens “It Ain’t Me Babe” to the point where you can hardly imagine Dylan ever having written it or sung it. Yet her pure intonation, reminiscent of a young Karla Bonnof, and lilting melancholy is quite captivating and reminds you that while Dylan may have been the ultimate vocal stylist over the years, many of his songs are actually re-invigorated in the hands of folk, country and blues players with quite different approaches.
Eliza Gilkyson’s “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” has a gentle resignation, less acerbic than the original, while “Sweetheart Like You”, a wistful romantic portrait on Infidels, becomes a sharp and salty serenade to the heart of Saturday night in the hands of Guy Davis & the High Flying Rockets, with ex-Band stalwart Levon Helm part of the backing band.
But my favourite track, in a string of pleasures, is the one by French-Canadian group Hart-Rouge, who take “With God on Our Side”, translate it lyrically as “Dieu a Nos Cotes” and musically as a multi-layered Canuck reel, replete with a number of exquisite key changes, and transform the stark bones of the Dylan classic into an intoxicating political chanson.
A Nod to Bob isn’t merely a perfunctory, 14 strong trawl through the Dylan songbook. It is a sensitively conceived and performed package that really does the term “tribute” justice. The text that accompanies the CD — the introduction, the biographies and artist comments — is ample testament to the fact that Red House have both an immense respect for the back pages of their chosen subject but also a powerful yearning to support and sustain the creative genie that Bob let out of the bottle 40 years ago.